The best books to understand why cultural knowledge is essential to understand the economy

Erwin Dekker Author Of The Viennese Students of Civilization: The Meaning and Context of Austrian Economics Reconsidered
By Erwin Dekker

Who am I?

I am a historian and economist who is fascinated by the intersection of the economy and culture. This started for me with the idea that economic ideas were shaped by the cultural context in which they emerged, which resulted in my book on the Viennese Students. Over time it has expanded to an interest for the markets for the arts from music to the visual arts, as well as the way in which culture and morality influence economic dynamism. Economics and the humanities are frequently believed to be at odds with each other, but I hope to inspire a meaningful conversation between them.


I wrote...

The Viennese Students of Civilization: The Meaning and Context of Austrian Economics Reconsidered

By Erwin Dekker,

Book cover of The Viennese Students of Civilization: The Meaning and Context of Austrian Economics Reconsidered

What is my book about?

The Austrian School of Economics originated in the rich cultural and intellectual milieu of Vienna between 1880 and 1935. My book demonstrates how the theories of economists such as Joseph Schumpeter, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek arose in the extramural circles (Kreise) which met in the coffeehouses of Vienna. Drawing on cultural histories of Vienna my book shows how their theories of entrepreneurship, the market process, and the dangers of social engineering were shaped by underlying cultural problems in the dying years of the Habsburgs Empire and Red Vienna of the interwar years. The therapeutic skepticism which pervaded the work of novelists like Joseph Roth and Hermann Broch help us understand their conviction that social scientists should be students, not masters of society.

The books I picked & why

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The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce

By Deirdre N Mccloskey,

Book cover of The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce

Why this book?

Economists are arguing to this day what gave rise to the enormous rise in living standards since the 1750s. Deirdre McCloskey argues in this first book of her Bourgeois trilogy that it resulted from a cultural shift in which bourgeois virtues replaced aristocratic ones. The book opened my eyes to the importance of cultural attitudes (dignity and stigma) of various economic and social activities. McCloskey claims that sustained economic growth and innovation were crucially dependent on the dignity of the bourgeois and their commercial activities. McCloskey’s fluent prose which interweaves empirical historical knowledge with literary allusions remains a model to me. 

The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce

By Deirdre N Mccloskey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bourgeois Virtues as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a century and a half, the artists and intellectuals of Europe have scorned the bourgeoisie. And for a millennium and a half, the philosophers and theologians of Europe have scorned the marketplace. The bourgeois life, capitalism, Mencken's "booboisie" and David Brooks's "bobos" - all have been, and still are, framed as being responsible for everything from financial to moral poverty, world wars, and spiritual desuetude. Countering these centuries of assumptions and unexamined thinking is Deirdre McCloskey's "The Bourgeois Virtues", a magnum opus that offers a radical view: capitalism is good for us. McCloskey's sweeping, charming, and even humorous survey…


John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman

By Robert Skidelsky,

Book cover of John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman

Why this book?

Biographies of economists can be dull and technical, but not if their subject is John Maynard Keynes. The flamboyant British economist was a member of the Bloomsbury Group of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster, married the famous Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, and had a group of followers known as the Cambridge circus. The great skill of Skidelsky is his ability to integrate the many facets of Keynes life, from the exciting intellectual milieu of Cambridge and the cultural milieu in London to the economic problems of war, peace, and the Great Depression. This book demonstrates in vivid terms that economics is done by economists with an underlying vision. In Schumpeter’s words that of Keynes was that of: “the arteriosclerotic economy whose opportunities for rejuvenating venture were in permanent decline.”

John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman

By Robert Skidelsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked John Maynard Keynes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE DEFINITIVE SINGLE-VOLUME BIOGRAPHY

Robert Skidelsky's three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes has been acclaimed as the authoritative account of the great economist-statesman's life. Here, Skidelsky has revised and abridged his magnum opus into one definitive book, which examines in its entirety the intellectual and ideological journey that led an extraordinarily gifted young man to concern himself with the practical problems of an age overshadowed by war. John Maynard Keynes offers a sympathetic account of the life of a passionate visionary and an invaluable insight into the economic philosophy that still remains at the centre of political and economic thought.…


The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information

By Richard A. Lanham,

Book cover of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information

Why this book?

This might well be the least-read book on my list, but I hope that will change soon. Lanham is a Professor of Rhetoric who argues that Andy Warhol was the best economist of attention of the twentieth century, and an exemplar for the economy of the twenty-first, in which value is created through knowledge and attention. Lanham’s inspired distinction between stuff and fluff convincingly demonstrates that the modern economy is more about the experience, style, and packaging of the stuff, rather than the other way around. And that is a good thing. In one of the many digressions in the book he presents Friedrich Hayek as the Dadaist among the economists. This book is a wild ride, with insights on every page. 

The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information

By Richard A. Lanham,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Economics of Attention as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

If economics is about the allocation of resources, then what is the most precious resource in our new information economy? Certainly not information, for we are drowning in it. No, what we are short of is the attention to make sense of that information. With all the verve and erudition that have established his earlier books as classics, Richard A. Lanham here traces our epochal move from an economy of things and objects to an economy of attention. According to Lanham, the central commodity in our new age of information is not stuff but style, for style is what competes…


The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

By Colin Campbell,

Book cover of The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

Why this book?

Perhaps Max Weber’s book on the Protestant Ethic should be on my list. But I prefer this book by sociologist Campbell which is at least as bold in its argument. It takes a fresh look at consumption and suggests that modern consumption draws on human imagination, a desire for novelty, and experimentation. Like Weber, Campbell traces the historical roots of modern economic action, and he does so by suggesting that Romanticism was not a hostile reaction to capitalism, but the imaginative counterpart to the productive revolution of the eighteenth century. As such Romanticism facilitated the Industrial Revolution and made the modern economy possible. Campbell does not explore this, but I think of the Romantic Ethic as the cultural background for the subjective theory of value in economics.

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism

By Colin Campbell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 1987, Colin Campbell's classic treatise on the sociology of consumption has become one of the most widely cited texts in sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and the history of ideas. In the thirty years since its publication, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism has lost none of its impact. If anything, the growing commodification of society, the increased attention to consumer studies and marketing, and the ever-proliferating range of purchasable goods and services have made Campbell's rereading of Weber more urgent still. As Campbell uncovers how and why a consumer-oriented society emerged from a Europe…


Understanding the Culture of Markets

By Virgil Storr,

Book cover of Understanding the Culture of Markets

Why this book?

Mainstream economic accounts of culture are prone to treat culture as a set of norms or informal institutions which constrain economic behavior: ‘don’t charge interest,’ ‘don’t sell kidneys,’ or ‘always tip at a bar’. Storr presents an alternative account of culture as the animating spirit of an economy, which he illustrates through various entrepreneurial spirits which shape the direction of an economy. This book is the perfect combination of serious anthropological theory (Geertz) and an appreciation of the market process. Culture is not that which obstructs market, but that what brings economies to life. 

Understanding the Culture of Markets

By Virgil Storr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Understanding the Culture of Markets as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How does culture impact economic life? Is culture like a ball and chain that actors must lug around as they pursue their material interests? Or, is culture like a tool-kit from which entrepreneurs can draw resources to aid them in their efforts? Or, is being immersed in a culture like wearing a pair of blinders? Or, is culture like wearing a pair of glasses with tinted lenses? Understanding the Culture of Markets explores how culture shapes economic activity and describes how social scientists (especially economists) should incorporate considerations of culture into their analysis.

Although most social scientists recognize that culture…


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